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Playing Gods

Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction

Andrew Feldherr
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 390
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  • Book Info
    Playing Gods
    Book Description:

    This book offers a novel interpretation of politics and identity in Ovid's epic poem of transformations, theMetamorphoses. Reexamining the emphatically fictional character of the poem,Playing Godsargues that Ovid uses the problem of fiction in the text to redefine the power of poetry in Augustan Rome. The book also provides the fullest account yet of how the poem relates to the range of cultural phenomena that defined and projected Augustan authority, including spectacle, theater, and the visual arts.

    Andrew Feldherr argues that a key to the political as well as literary power of theMetamorphosesis the way it manipulates its readers' awareness that its stories cannot possibly be true. By continually juxtaposing the imaginary and the real, Ovid shows how a poem made up of fictions can and cannot acquire the authority and presence of other discursive forms. One important way that the poem does this is through narratives that create a "double vision" by casting characters as both mythical figures and enduring presences in the physical landscapes of its readers. This narrative device creates the kind of tensions between identification and distance that Augustan Romans would have felt when experiencing imperial spectacle and other contemporary cultural forms.

    Full of original interpretations,Playing Godsconstructs a model for political readings of fiction that will be useful not only to classicists but to literary theorists and cultural historians in other fields.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3654-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Ovid begins theMetamorphosesby promising his readers, quite literally, the world. The gods who inspire the poet’s song are asked to lead his narrative “from the first creation of the cosmos to my own times” (1.3–4). Alongside the grandeur of the project they set in motion, however, the lines already signal a number of questions that Ovid’s audience will have to confront throughout the fifteen books that follow. To start with, the technical terms used to describe the composition of the work present it as a kind of hybrid, paradoxically claiming the qualities of two antithetical poetic forms:...

  5. Part One: Fiction and Empire

    • CHAPTER 1 Metamorphosis and Fiction
      (pp. 15-59)

      The aim of this first chapter is to offer a fuller description of the distinctive nature of Ovidian fictionality. A close reading of the extensive narrative sequence that occupies the last quarter of Ovid’s first book—the interlocked tales of Io, Argus, and Syrinx—highlights how Ovid’s strategies of keeping the reader at once aware of the external reality of his text and absorbed by the reality it describes are thematized within the story and reciprocally linked to the emergence of distinctive internal points of view. Two specific features of the poem especially further this play between the positions of...

    • CHAPTER 2 Wavering Identity
      (pp. 60-122)

      In artistic terms, the weaving contest between Arachne and Minerva ends in a draw. Even the most hostile possible judge, Minerva herself, can find no fault with her rival’s tapestry. But art does not count for everything, and the fact that Arachne has so ably vindicated her abilities fails to prevent her tale too from becoming another example of the folly of rivaling the gods. The tapestry may be perfect but Minerva destroys it¹ and beats the girl with her spindle. Unable to endure this indignity, Arachne hangs herself. Minerva at that point feels pity, but her sympathy manifests itself...

  6. Part Two: Spectacle

    • CHAPTER 3 Homo Spectator: Sacrifice and the Making of Man
      (pp. 125-159)

      As we saw in the preceding chapter, the multiplicity of points of view available on Daedalus’s flight also conveys the instability of the poet’s own status. At times, his creative abilities make us look up to him as a god; at other times, we see him as a servile craftsman whose skills at best allow him to imitate his betters. But the uncertain, intermediate position occupied by Daedalus, and through a further “imitation” by Ovid himself, mimics in turn the originary position of all human beings within the cosmic order. So too does the poet’s double role as a maker...

    • CHAPTER 4 Poets in the Arena
      (pp. 160-198)

      One of Ovid’s most sophisticated devices for explicitly positioning his prestige as author within the Roman economy of political power comes through his interweaving of poetry with public ritual and spectacle. In his great appeal to Augustus from exile, the poet gives his participation in public festivals of thanksgiving as material proof of his personal loyalty to the emperor (Trist. 2.57–60). But beyond contrasting such sure and tangible signs of Ovid’s place in the Roman community with ananimusandmensthat are invisible and thus, like the products of his genius, subject to misinterpretation (cf. 2.77–80), Ovid...

    • CHAPTER 5 Philomela Again?
      (pp. 199-240)

      The story of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus at first seems to lack the kind of links to contemporary Roman ideology and spectacular praxis that formed the starting points for our reading of the Pentheus tale. Yet it is in part the deliberate turning aside of such recognizably Roman features within the narrative that gives it its programmatic importance for understanding the dialogue Ovid creates between the visual experience of metamorphosis his text offers and the world of civic ritual and spectacular performance. The tale’s obviously tragic parallels, even as they confirm its status as a Greek, as opposed to Roman,...

  7. Part Three: Ovid and the Visual Arts

    • CHAPTER 6 Faith in Images
      (pp. 243-292)

      In the first book of his poems from exile, Ovid explicitly compares hisMetamorphosesto a visual representation, claiming in fact that his poem provides a “greater” image of the poet than any sculptural depiction:carmina maior imago(Tr. 1.7.11).¹ This is but one of the many connections between Ovid’s great work and the arts of painting and sculpture. For not only has the poem provided by far the most significant repository of subjects for artistic representation of any text in the Western tradition other than the Bible, but links have often been perceived between Ovid’s highly visualized descriptions and...

    • CHAPTER 7 “Songs the Greater Image”
      (pp. 293-341)

      The kinds of interpretative decisions Bergmann and Elsner imagine being made by the viewer confronted with the painted images in the homes of the Roman elite emerge with even greater impact from the grand urban monuments of the emperor, those which were experienced by the viewer not as guest, client, slave, or master in the household but as citizen or subject of empire. In chapter 2, I argued that the political functions of complexes like the temple of Apollo on the Palatine resided not so much in the intricacies of the claims they communicated about the role of their ultimate...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 342-350)

    Keith Hopkins describes the operation of Roman ritual as follows:

    Rituals cumulatively, throughout each year and each lifetime, provided Romans with a system of action and knowledge by which they negotiated standardized and repetitive ways of dealing with powerful imponderables, such as sexual appetite, hierarchy, and sickness. Sacrifices, for example, joined humans with their gods, gladiatorial games confirmed Roman superiority over defeated enemies and highlighted the risks of cowardice in battle, the Lupercalia helped delineate the multiple differences between men and women and their mutually problematic sexuality, the Saturnalia dealt with slaves by subverting rank and temporarily giving slaves the...

  9. References
    (pp. 351-364)
  10. Index of Passages Cited
    (pp. 365-372)
  11. General Index
    (pp. 373-377)